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STEVE DeSHAZO: Confident Hokies shrug off naysayers’ predictions

CHARLOTTE, N.C.—Commissioner John Swofford stood at the podium Tuesday and proudly proclaimed that the Atlantic Coast Conference has “maybe the greatest collection of college basketball ever assembled in one conference.”

With newcomers Syracuse, Notre Dame and Pittsburgh joining perennial powers Duke and North Carolina, his assertion carries some weight. But even in a power-packed, supersized 15-team megaconference, someone has to finish last.

And few observers outside of Blacksburg (and maybe a few within Montgomery County) believe that it won’t be Virginia Tech. The Hokies were a near-unanimous choice to finish dead last by media members attending Tuesday’s ACC Operation Basketball at the Ritz–Carlton. Only 11 of 54 voters picked them as high

as 14th.

“They’re gonna be wrong.” freshman guard Ben Emelogu said of the skeptics. “We feel like a lot of people underestimate us, and it puts a chip on our shoulder. That makes us a very dangerous team.”

But motivation wins far fewer games than talent does, and the mere fact that Emelogu was in Charlotte to represent the Hokies speaks volumes about the state of their program. Tech finished 13–19 (4–14 in the ACC) last season, James Johnson’s first as head coach, despite the presence of the nation’s leading scorer, Erick Green.

Green is now with the NBA’s Utah Jazz, meaning the Hokies have to replace not only his 25 points per game, but his leadership and toughness. Emelogu, a Grand Prairie, Texas, native, is the most heralded of Johnson’s five-man freshman class.

Many them will be forced into playing key roles against the ACC’s powerhouses. That’s not usually a recipe for job security.

“What I do depends a lot on what those guys do,” Johnson admitted.

That’s because his upperclassmen—senior forward Jarell Eddie and juniors C.J. Barksdale and Marquis Rankin—have been role players so far. Rather than placing them in leadership positions, Johnson took the rare step of naming Emelogu as team captain last week.

He’s not conceding this season as a lost cause, but Johnson is clearly looking to the future. Said Johnson: “I’m coaching [Emelogu] to be a leader.”

With quantity instead of quality, Johnson plans to implement a full-court press this season, hoping to steal a lot of passes (and perhaps a few victories). It’s his only real option, even if it means playing freshmen Emelogu and Devin Wilson along with sophomore Adam Smith in the backcourt and living with the consequences.

“I’m gonna let ’em play through it,” Johnson said with a smile. “It’ll be painful at times, but it will be beautiful at times.”

And with time and patience, it can work. Two years ago, Boston College hired Steve Donahue as coach, and he brought in an eight-man freshman class and preached what he called “blind faith.” The Eagles won just four ACC games in 20011–12, then seven last year. This season, they’re expected to be contenders.

“Since the day I stepped on campus, coach Donahue preached the importance of sticking to the process,” said junior forward Ryan Anderson, BC’s best player. “There’ll be ups and downs; it’ll be a roller-coaster ride. He said it’s even more important to stick to the process during the ups than during the downs.”

The difference is that BC made the decision to be patient with Donahue. Will Johnson get that same timetable? He was hired in the summer of 2012 after Tech unexpectedly fired Seth Greenberg. Athletic director Jim Weaver plans to retire when his contract expires on Dec. 31, 2015. Johnson’s deal is through 2017, but if the Hokies play down to expectations, will he survive at a school where basketball is a distant second fiddle to Frank Beamer’s football program?

Each ACC school brings its coach and two players to Operation Basketball for interviews. While UNC’s Roy Williams held court with dozens of reporters at the next table, Johnson sat with a single scribe and talked about his team’s low expectations.

“I tell our guys, ‘Don’t let other people doing their job affect you doing your job,’” he said. “Those guys [Williams, Mike Krzyzewski and Jim Boeheim] have earned theirs. We’ll keep plugging away, and one day I’ll be batting [reporters] away.” 

Steve DeShazo: 540/374-5443